Venice Beach California evokes a lot of imagery, sun, surfers, and most of all seafood. Most Venice locals have their favorite spots to quench their thirst and more importantly their appetites, and Chaya Venice has been one of those favorites for nearly 3 decades. But Chaya is more than just a Venice eatery, it’s a family tradition steeped in Japanese history and the pioneers of Asian Fusion in America. Hikage Chaya was opened in the 1600’s as a roadside teahouse in Japan, 300 some years later, the Tsunoda family brought the business to the West Coast. Now with three locations in California, Venice, Downtown Los Angeles, and San Francisco, Chaya is showing Californians there is so much more to seafood.
When Chaya Venice and Chaya Brasserie in Beverly Hills opened, CEO Yuta Tsunoda and his family wanted to showcase Japanese food, culture and cuisine with French influences. The term “brasserie” means a beer-hole in French, Tsunoda wanted to use the hustle and bustle of this French term and marry it to the Japaneze Izakaya style of cooking and dining. Undoubtably, this created an extremely unique dining experience and a loyalist following. As both locations became a staple and cooking continued to evolve, Tsunoda knew they needed to evolve. “The old way of eating, course by course by yourself is shifting and when we tried to change, our regulars voted no. We are very lucky to have those clientele but we wanted to progress and our chefs have the skillset to do so.” While Venice locals may have been resistant, it was the right move. Now offering a Kaisen Bar, literally meaning Fresh Fish, to showcase freshly flown in exclusive, Japenese fish and a menu changing on the daily, diners are able to get the full experience of the ingredients and the culture. “We wanted to introduce unique fish that Americans never have the opportunity to eat, much more obscure fish that you’ve never heard of that only local Japanese can enjoy.” This isn’t just your spicy tuna roll, fish are flown in daily from the Japenese Fish Market, so fresh you could swear you are in Japan.
Chef Natori and Tsunoda were gracious enough to give us a tasting of their revamped menu and specialty dishes. Tsunoda believes the chefs should be able to experiement with the local California and Japanese flavors, creating new ways to enjoy classic and simple ingredients. Tsunoda and Chef Natori, who has been the chef at Chaya for 25 years, filled the room with laughs, delicious food and aromas and some of the best food we’ve ever eaten, including the original Tuna Tartare. “The tuna tartare was actually created right here in our kitchen and now is in the Smithsonian.” How many people can say that?We take for granted the Tuna Tartare, its been reinvented so many times its hard to believe it wouldn’t have existed without our very own Chaya.
While dining at Chaya Venice, you see the love of food and culture, the partnership between Tsunoda and the chefs, and the inspiration in everything they do all while dedicated to “doing it right.” Tsunoda left us with a simple statement,“We wanted to challenge ourselves to have people say ‘what was it before?’ We are the Pioneers of Asian-Fusion and we are doing Les Deux now. Part-two!”
Checking out their remodeled space is a must, and order the Paella, trust me. Our trip wouldn’t have been complete with a 21 questions to dive a little deeper.
Favorite place you have travelled
Yuta: Colorado River Rafting and traveling through Europe where I got to discover so many different foods and restaurants
Favorite Japanese fish to eat
Natori: Fugu (Blowfish)
Yuta: Japanese “Aji”, Horse Mackerel from my hometown ocean
Shochu or Sake
Natori: Both, I can’t pick one
Yuta: Shochu for less of a hangover!
Early bird or Night Owl
Natori: Early bird, but I used to be a night owl.
Yuta: Early Bird
Biggest food inspiration
Natori: other Japanese chefs who cook all types of cuisine (including pastries)
Yuta: Farm to table, Ocean to table, and just growing up my whole life watching chefs cook
Biggest life inspiration
Natori: My family
Favorite cuisine to eat besides Japanese
Yuta: It depends on the season and my mood. Currently it's Mediterranean
Favorite cuisine to cook besides Japanese
Yuta: Chinese or Indian
Denim or Suit?
Friday night: Ordering In or Dining out?
Natori: Dining out
Yuta: Dining out
Natori: Hikau Utada
Beach or mountains
Natori: Mediterranean Cruise
Yuta: Remote Island vacation
Happiest childhood memory
Natori: New Year’s Day
Yuta: Camping trips to national parks with my family
Favorite classic film
Natori: The Godfather
Yuta: Original Star Wars
Childhood celebrity crush
Natori: Jackie Chan
Yuta: Heather Locklear
Dessert or wine
Netflix or Movie Theater
Yuta: Movie Theater
New Year’s Resolution
Natori: To go on a diet!
Yuta: Think about family more
Most exciting moment in your career
Natori: When I started working at CHAYA Brasserie in Beverly Hills in 1989
Yuta: When CHAYA Brasserie in Beverly Hills hosted the CAA Golden Globes party; when I was a manager at the Four Seasons Hotel and served President Bush and the Israeli Prime Minister
Words to live by
Natori: Have fun
Yuta: No regrets, passion.
Interview by: Mischa Teichgraeber
Photographs by: Elliot London
CEO Yuta Tsunoda & Chef Natori